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The Sandbox: “Braid” Forges a Path for Indie Gaming

The Sandbox: “Braid” Forges a Path for Indie Gaming (photo)

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Two columns back, I capped off a discussion about the video game industry’s worsening case of blockbusteritis with a plea for a viable indie gaming model like that of the movies. There is an independent gaming community out there, one that’s historically existed mostly on the PC, and continues to thrive thanks to sites like Indie Games and TIGSource. What’s needed is a more accessible platform, if indie games ever hope to make waves with console owners. And it seems to me that that platform exists today in Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network, two sturdily designed online venues through which people can play multiplayer games with others, rent TV shows and movies, chat with friends and purchase both expansion packs for over-the-counter titles and original games produced exclusively for the service.

It’s this last feature that holds the most promise, since the enormous roster of current downloadable games on Xbox Live (over 200 to date) are more often than not the work of independent designers and generally cost no more than ten bucks. Resourceful, talented gamemakers can, in theory, use Xbox Live to bypass the typical retail model and the need to produce something with enough mass appeal to offset high production costs. It allows them to directly pitch their comparatively cheaply produced, idiosyncratic works to a market of more than 17 million subscribers.

Of course, in light of mainstream gamers’ infatuation with animesque RPGs and intergalactic FPSs, forming a legitimate indie gaming community can seem like wishful thinking. But there’s hope: Xbox Live has already given the gaming world its equivalent to “Pulp Fiction” in the guise of “Braid.” Bear with me here — like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Jonathan Blow’s rightly acclaimed title (released last August) uses a familiar genre template (a 2-D side-scrolling “Mario”-esque platformer) that it invigorates with time-warping devices, a dose of deconstructive self-consciousness and a dedication to bold rule-breaking that separates it from its more traditional brethren. And just as Tarantino’s postmodern classic once and for all brought indie film to the forefront of cinema as a whole, so too does “Braid” feel like the first real opportunity for indie gaming to stake its claim as a much-needed alternative to the AAA franchises that dominate the weekly sales charts.

05012009_braid2.jpgSelf-produced for $200,000 over three years by Blow (a former videogame industry consultant), “Braid” is a game that’s at once user-friendly and surprisingly profound, one of the truest marriages of form and content I’ve ever experienced with the medium. You play as Tim, a nattily dressed man in search of a princess kidnapped by a monster. Starting off on the darkened streets of an unidentified city, Tim travels to a house whose doors lead to different worlds, which he enters after first reading books that give an oblique (and, admittedly, rather pretentiously penned) background on his relationship with the princess, as well as suggest his regret over an unidentified past mistake that caused him to lose her. Each level finds Tim running and jumping to avoid or eliminate “Super Mario”-ish enemies, while deciphering puzzles to obtain jigsaw pieces of paintings that must be completed in order to advance to the next stage.

Fundamental to “Braid”‘s gameplay is a time-shifting conceit worked into each of its six worlds. Rewinding time is mandatory, though this mechanic takes different forms, from the straightforward doubling-back tricks of the “Time and Forgiveness” opening level, to the “shadow” self (a mirror image of your past actions) that must be manipulated in the “Time and Decision” fourth section, to the slow-motion effects (produced by a mystical ring) of the “Hesitance” fifth board. Because one can always reverse prior actions, Tim can never die. The result of this time-maneuvering structure is a demanding experience, one that rewards patience and experimentation as well as nimble hand-eye reflexes. And its difficulty is a rebuke to mainstream games whose obstacles are feeble and, consequently, whose rewards are paltry. Blow has gone on record arguing against the use of online walkthroughs (i.e. point-by-point strategy guides) because he feels the entire point of the game’s toughness is to allow for a sense of real accomplishment when its problems are solved.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.